Genesis 38 by Robert Dean
Series:Genesis (2003)
Duration:55 mins 1 sec

Providence, Protection and Provision. Genesis 38

This is a story of immorality and perversion and cultural distance for us. There are things going on in this particular episode that are so far removed from our culture, from a Mosaic culture in Israel after the Mosaic law, it is difficult for us to understand some of the details that are going on here, just because of that divide, a culture 3000 years ago with totally different norms and standards. But what we see here is that this is a story that exemplifies divine providence, and that is something emphasized all the way through this Joseph episode—the providence of God in the background. As we go through the whole Joseph narrative there isn't that much of an overt involvement of God in the lives of Joseph or in the life of the family, but we do see His hand behind the scenes protecting the family, providing for them, taking care of them.

To correctly interpret this passage we have to understand it in the context of the structure of Genesis. In Genesis chapter 37 the focus shifted to the descendants of Jacob—Genesis 37:2. From Genesis 37-50 every single chapter focuses on Joseph, except for chapter 38. In chapter 38 we put Joseph on hold while he is a slave of Potiphar's in Egypt and the camera switches back over to what is happening in the land with the family, specifically in the family of his brother Judah. So we have to answer the question: What is God doing here? Why is this stuck here in the middle? It has to be understood within the theme of Genesis, and the theme of Genesis is blessing and cursing.

We have to understand blessing because blessing is one of those words which become overused. It is not happiness. Happiness is something that is too fleeting for us. We think of happiness as ephemeral joy that comes and goes, it is not the deep joy the Scripture has. But blessing isn't joy, it is being in the place of life and happiness, enrichment, prosperity, where we feel the quality of life because of our relationship to God, even though we may be in very undesirable circumstances. So blessing is not to be defined in terms of material prosperity or material circumstances, it is ultimately a focus on the soul.

Cursing, on the other hand, has to do with the imposition of a barrier to life and happiness, and often this is judicial. A curse in the Scripture is the execution of divine justice—judgment. We don't use the term "curse" in the Bible in an occult sense like black magic, an evil eye curse, that kind of thing. When God curses man it is an expression of the outworking of divine justice and judgment upon sin.

One of the other things we see as we go through this process in Genesis is that as God works out His plan and purpose in history we consistently see how He makes "adjustments" related to sinful decisions that man makes. But these adjustments are not because God is taken aback or is surprised because of the sinful decisions and failures of man because God in His omniscience knows all the knowable. He knew from eternity past all the failures and flaws and problems that man would have. It is important to recognize that God structured history and man and the whole interaction between the will of the creature subordinate to the sovereign control of the creator in such a way that God can maneuver history and bring about that which He intends to bring about, while at the same time allowing creatures to fulfill their individual responsibilities and to be accountable for the decisions that they make in such a way that there is true contingency in history. Nevertheless that contingency is not pure random chance and chaos which is what we have in pagan systems of thought but that God is in ultimate control of the destiny of man, and He works out His plans and His purposes in history. That is what Romans 8:28 is all about.

In this episode we see a classic example within the family that God has called out, established and chosen to be the family through whom He is going to bring the Messiah, through whom He is going to bring blessing to all mankind, through whom He is going to reveal Himself, that in this family who make numerous bad decisions, sinful decisions, where there are so many failures, that God is working and that grace dominates.

The second context is more immediate, and that is the inheritance struggles that are going on inside this family, because they have been promised an inheritance package from God that is encapsulated within the Abrahamic covenant that is just incredible. So there is this initial move by Abraham who has been promised a seed, so he tries to make it on his own with Hagar. There is a competition between Esau and Jacob and all of the deception and the back-stabbing and manipulation that went on from Jacob. Now we are continuing to see that work itself out in the Joseph narrative and one of the major issues going on in chapter 37 is that Jacob is identifying Joseph as the one who will be the recipient of the blessing, the inheritance. That is what the indication is by giving him the coat of many colors, that Jacob is showing favoritism to Joseph and is indicating that Joseph will be the "firstborn son." When we use that term the first thing that comes to mind is firstborn in terms of order or chronology, but that is not the primary meaning of the term "firstborn son," it is firstborn in terms of position of prominence. So even a son who is third, fourth, fifth in line can be designated the firstborn son because the firstborn son gets the double portion, the double inheritance. So what has happened here in the episode with the brothers is that hostility towards toward Joseph because he has ten brothers ahead of him in the line of inheritance order. They all want to get their piece of the pie before Joseph does and so that is in the background.

Why do we need to understand this whole context?

1)  First of all, it is here to remind the reader [Israel] again of the assimilation of Israel with the Canaanite culture. Judah who is the fourth-born son to Leah leaves the family and he goes down to a Canaanite city and takes a Canaanite wife. He is the first one openly to assimilate completely with Canaanite culture. This is a problem, they are supposed to live separately from the Canaanites. So that puts the promise, the seed, the family in danger.

2)   Secondly, this episode illustrates the paganism and the carnality in Jacob's family in contrast to the obedience and the chasteness of Joseph. In the next chapter we see how Potiphar's wife tries to seduce Joseph and he flees from her, but in this chapter we see the seduction of Judah by a roadside prostitute.

3)  Third, the story in chapter 38 reveals the background of the plan of Pharez. Judah is going to have twins through Tamar. There are only two sets of twins in all of the Bible—Esau and Jacob and the twins born to Tamar. So when we look down the road the divine viewpoint interpretation from Scripture of the birth of Pharez is that this is a line of blessing. When we look at what goes on in this chapter it is like What is going on here? These people are really messed up. But this is going to be the line of blessing as we shall see.

4)  This is here to record for us the inauspicious beginnings of the tribe of Judah, from which the Lord Jesus Christ will eventually come.

5)  It magnifies the immeasurable grace of the God whom we serve. God is working here and He turns the judgment into blessing.

6)  The absence of any mention of God in the story does not mean that God is not involved. On the contrary, what we see again and again is the unseen hand of God in divine guidance. God's plan and purposes never really gets jeopardized in history despite human failures. We have to realize that much of history is directed by God in a covert manner. He is not appearing on every mountain top in history telling people what they are supposed to do, He is working behind the scenes in terms of what is called divine providence. In the same way much of the guidance for the believer is given mediately through the Scripture and not immediately through dreams and visions or through direct revelation. Very few Old Testament saints ever got direct revelation, and those that did didn't get it all the time.

This is made clear in that the historic outworking of the Judah-Tamar union brings about the ancestral line of the royal house of Judah through Pharez, her son, to Salmon who marries Rahab the prostitute. The their line goes down through Boaz who marries Ruth, the Gentile Moabitess, and then that line goes down through David and Bathsheba. These four women, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, are the only four women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus Christ in Matthew chapter one. All this fits into this tremendous pattern that we see throughout Scripture, that is, how God is bringing about His salvation despite human flaws and human failures. He is still going to bring about a perfect savior who is without sin.

When we look at how all this works together a key verse comes up at the end of Ruth. In Ruth 4:12 the elders of the city are pronouncing a blessing upon Boaz and his marriage with Ruth, and in that blessing they say, "May your house be like the house of Pharez, whom Tamar bare unto Judah, of the seed which the LORD shall give you of this young woman." So everything that we have outside of Genesis 38 is very positive about Tamar and about Pharez and about her children through Judah. So we have to think about that as we go through our study.

Genesis 38:1, "And it came to pass at that time, that Judah departed from his brothers, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah." Later on we find that this is one of his close friends, a Canaanite friend.

Genesis 38:1, "And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite, whose name was Shuah; and he took her, and went in unto her." This is all taking place in the southern part of Judah. Adullam is somewhere down to the south-east Beersheba. So he is going out and living amongst the Canaanites. What we know about Adullam is that it was an old Canaanite city that was located out in the hill country of Judah, and that there were a lot of caves in that area because later on David is going to take refuge from king Saul and hide in a cave of Adullam near this city.

One thing that shows up here is that Judah has absolutely no qualms about marrying outside the family. He goes off on his own, completely separates from the family and marries a Canaanite woman, and he gives birth to three sons. Er is the eldest, Onan is number two and Shelah is the third. Just before the brothers travel down to Egypt to get food is about when the events of this chapter take place. Er marries and all that the Scripture tells us about him is that he dies the sin unto death because he does evil in the sight of the Lord.

Genesis 38:6, "And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar." We are not told that Tamar was a Canaanite girl but that is the indication from the text. There is nothing to suggest that there is any desire to go find a girl among the relatives for Er. What we see is that she has a certain level of integrity about her that is completely missing from the family of Judah. What we are told about Er is that he did evil in the sight of the Lord. The phrase "he did evil in the sight of the Lord" is used some 56 times in the Old Testament. It is only found 6 times in the Torah: once in Genesis, once in Numbers, and four times in Deuteronomy. It describes this unstated evil behavior of Er here, it describes the rebellion of Israel against God at Kadesh-barnea, in Deuteronomy it twice refers to idolatry and twice to transgressing the covenant. In Judges it almost exclusively describes idolatry. In 1 Samuel 15 it describes Saul's rebellion when he fails to completely slaughter all of the Amelekites and Samuel has to come and reprimand him and tell him the sin of rebellion is like the sin of divination. And it is used numerous times in the books of Kings and Chronicles to describe idolatry. So when this term is used it is a serious term. The term "evil" is also used to describe the fact that man did evil continuously before the Lord in Genesis 6. It describes the sexual sins and perversion with the sons of God and the daughters of men in Genesis 6. It also describes the activities of the Sodomites in Sodom and Gomorrah.

So whatever it was that Er was doing it was serious and God took him out under the sin unto death. So they were not married very long and they did not have any children. Then Judah tells Onan to marry Tamar. This is why we have to understand the whole thing with inheritance to properly interpret this. We get into the doctrine of leveret marriage.

1.  Leveret marriage is the marriage of a widow to her husband's brother. This seems very odd to us. If a woman is married and her husband dies then his brother has the right to come in and to marry her for the purpose of raising up children to the dead man's name. They are considered his, not the brother's. The term leveret derives from the Latin word for brother-in-law.

2.  So the brother-in-law, in this case Onan, is supposed to come in, marry Tamar, and the children that they have will not be considered his. They are considered hers, and Er, because he is the oldest, gets the inheritance rights.

3.  The Mosaic law incorporated leveret marriage into the law in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. It is designed to protect widows in society who have lost their husband, who don't have a source of income, they don't have a male to protect them, and if they are childless they don't have sons top grow up and take care of them. That is part of the reason for it. The book of Ruth is based on this practice, although in Ruth it is a distant relative who marries Ruth. The Sadducees also used this law in an attempt to trap Jesus.

4.  The principle provided for the widow who was left without a husband, without protection, and without a source of income. It was designed to take care of her.

5.  The law was also designed to protect the family inheritance. There is a significant emphasis in Scripture on protecting inheritance and providing inheritance for the next generation.

In light of all of this the husband's family had an obligation to produce a male heir. If there is no male heir by the time the husband dies then a brother takes over. And if he dies, then the next brother takes over. That is what is going on in this passage.

Genesis 38:8, "And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother."

Genesis 38:9, "And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother." Tamar must have been a very attractive woman because he wanted to have sexual relations with her and enjoy the fruit of the marriage in that sense, but not the responsibilities that went with it. So with Onan it is all about selfish gratification and not about fulfilling responsibility. The tense of the verb here means that whenever he went into his brother's wife he emitted on the ground. This is not birth control, it is one man's refusal to fulfill his responsibilities. So God is going to take him out under the sin unto death as well, verse 10: "And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also."

Genesis 38:11, "Then said Judah to Tamar his daughter in law, Remain a widow at your father's house, till Shelah my son be grown: for he said, Lest peradventure he die also, as his brethren did. And Tamar went and dwelt in her father's house." Judah doesn't want to lose his third son to her, like a typical father who is blinded to the evil of his own children, he doesn't recognize that God has taken them out under the sin unto death because of their evil. So he is going to try to get around this situation to avoid giving Tamar to his third son. He never intends to let her marry Shelah. Judah is operating in a completely irresponsible, self-centered manner here, and is treating her in an extremely unjustified manner. His reasoning: "Lest peradventure he die also, as his brothers did."

Genesis 38:12, "And in process of time the daughter of Shuah Judah's wife died; and Judah was comforted, and went up unto his sheepshearers to Timnath, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite." Three or four years go by. The reason we are told that the daughter of Shuah's wife died is because there is no longer a chance for Judah to have a fourth son. He had these three sons, two are dead and one is left, and God has still got a plan to go through the tribe of Judah in developing the nation, the promise to Abraham.

Genesis 38:13, now there is a huge festival in Timnath, the sheep-shearing festival. It is party time and a great opportunity for Tamar to put everything on the line. She has been treated unfairly and unjustly. She has to come up with a plan in order to somehow fulfill her role and to have children. "And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold your father in law is going up to Timnath to shear his sheep." So starting in verse 11 we focus on Judah's dishonesty and his selfishness. And we see that the bad decisions that we make often put others in a position to take desperate actions to bring about what they know is the right thing. She is put between a rock and a hard place in terms of her life because he has put her on the shelf and she can't remarry again because she is supposed to go to Shelah and he is not going to give Shelah to marry her, so she is just in a holding pattern and has to force the circumstances. That doesn't necessarily justify the way in which she does it.

The problem that we face here is that these customs are completely foreign to us and our tendency is to cast judgment on her and what she does here. She is referred to in the Hebrew as a common street whore. She doesn't dress up like a cultic prostitute, which tells us something. She wouldn't have made it anywhere with Judah so she just dresses up like a street whore and puts a veil over her, and Judah is enticed. Verse 15, "When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a harlot; because she had covered her face."

Genesi 38:16, "And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in to you; (for he knew not that she was his daughter in law.) And she said, What will you give me, that you may come in to me?"

Then they negotiate the price, a kid from the flock. He didn't have it with him. He pledges her his signet ring and a cord that would go with that, and then his staff. All of this signifies who he is, the head of the family, the clan, and so she takes that with her. They have sexual relations and she gets pregnant, which is her desire.

Genesis 38:19, "And she arose, and went away, and laid by her veil from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood." Later Judah is going to fulfill the pledge, which shows a measure of integrity there, he just didn't forget about her.

Genesis 38:20, "And Judah sent the kid by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman's hand: but he found her not." He couldn't find here because he was looking for a cultic prostitute, not a street whore.

Genesis 38:23, "And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold, I sent this kid, and you have not found her."

Genesis 38:24, "And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar your daughter in law has played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt." Look at his self-righteous hypocrisy. This is a pagan punishment, not anything that was ever authorized through Scripture. He is the one whose bad decisions put her in this position to begin with.

We see the focus of this in verses 25-26. When she is taken she sends to him and says, "By the man, to whom these belong, am I with child: and she said, Discern, I pray you, whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and staff." Judah is caught! He has to acknowledge it, and he recognizes what has happened in this whole thing: "She has been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more." That is the interpretive key in this whole section. He is making an observation that she is more righteous than he is. He is the one who created this whole scenario and has forced her into this desperate maneuver in order to fulfill her role within the plan. She is family by virtue of marriage.

Genesis 38:27, "And it came to pass in the time of her travail, that, behold, twins were in her womb." That immediately brings to mind then inheritance struggle between Esau and Jacob. These things happen and are emphasized for a purpose to make sure we make the right connection.

Genesis 38:28, 29, "And it came to pass, when she travailed, that the one put out his hand: and the midwife took and bound upon his hand a scarlet thread, saying, This came out first. And it came to pass, as he drew back his hand, that, behold, his brother came out: and she said, How have you broken forth? this breach be upon thee: therefore his name was called Pharez." Remember what happened with Jacob and Esau? There was that struggle going on, and we see the same thing here. One of them starts to emerge and his hand comes out. So the midwife takes a scarlet thread and ties it off on the finger to identify the firstborn. But then the second one pushes his way past. The younger is going to dominate the older. That is the theme here that we see all the way through. The younger is going to take precedence over the older.


1)  God brings about justice. He utilizes the principle of an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. He brings about the principle that you will reap what you sow. So in the life of Judah, what has happened? Judah has been bitter against Joseph because Joseph the younger was going to rule over the older brothers. So what do we have in Judah's own family? There was competition over inheritance. Now the younger is going to rule over the elder in terms of the twins that are born to him. God uses the same weaknesses and sins to bring about justice. The lesson here is that those who pursue their life for their own gratification will ultimately deal with the justice of God.

2)  God's plans are never thwarted by man's sins. God is going to bring about what He desires to bring about and human sinfulness is never going to be great enough to destroy or end the plan of God.

3)  God turns human failures into triumphs of His grace, because when this story ends with Pharez, it doesn't end there, it ends at the cross; because this family, then becomes a critical link in the whole line down to the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ.